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Helen Macdonald, The human flock (Commentary)

March 6, 2016

I know, I know, I sound like I’m obsessed with Helen Macdonald. I’m not, but I am interested in nature and landscape, and she has thought and researched at length about the topic. I’ve called this post a commentary, because it’s not a review. Rather, I’m going to draw on both an On Nature column she wrote for The New York Times Magazine and her book H is for hawk (my review) – and look at a political issue she raised in both writings.

I’ll start with a comment that occurs near the beginning of H is for hawk. Early in her hawk training sessions, she takes Mabel out walking in the streets of her town, but almost no-one speaks to her. They all saw her, she says, how could they not, but “they just pretended they hadn’t”. Except for those who did. A man from Kazakhstan saw her. They discuss Kazakh falconers, and he tells her “I miss my country”. A Mexican cyclist “skids to a halt” and admires Mabel, saying he’s never seen a hawk so close, only high in the sky where they are “free”. And then she realises

that in all my days of walking with Mabel the only people who have come up and spoken to us have been outsiders: children, teenage goths, homeless people, overseas students, travellers, drunks, people on holiday … I feel ashamed of my nation’s reticence. Its desire to keep walking, to move on, not to comment, not to interrogate, not to take any interest in something peculiar, unusual, in anything that isn’t entirely normal.

I thought, interesting, but moved on, with her, to the next part of her story.

Then, late in the book, she’s out walking with Mabel again, and runs into a retired couple she knows. They exchange pleasantries, including discussing the beauty of a herd of deer they’d all seen. Their conversation concludes with:

“Doesn’t it give you hope?” he says suddenly.
“Hope?”
“Yes,” he says. “Isn’t it a relief that there’re things still like that, a real bit of Old England still left, despite all these immigrants coming in.”

Helen is horrified, but says nothing. However, as she walks home she thinks

… I should have said something. But embarrassment had stopped my tongue. Stomping along, I start pulling on the thread of darkness they’d handed me.

She thinks of why and how people and creatures move between countries, of Göring’s desire to move Jews from Germany, of Finnish goshawks in England, of a Lithuanian mushroom gatherer in England who couldn’t understand why English people didn’t know which mushrooms in their woods were and weren’t edible. She says:

I think of all the complicated histories that landscapes have, and how easy it is to wipe them away, put easier, safer histories in their place.

Today’s “Old England”, for example, is not, actually, the England of 100 years ago, let alone 400 hundred years ago, given the impact of settlement and agriculture on the land and its “natural” inhabitants. And those deer? Well, they and the hare are “legacies of trade and invasion”, albeit back to Roman times. Immigrants in their day, in fact. She suggests that instead of fighting “for landscapes that remind us of who we think we are”, we should “fight, instead, for landscapes buzzing and glowing with life in all its variousness”.

Starling murmuration

Starling murmuration, by Walter Baxter, using CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This brings me to the article, “Human flock”, she wrote for The New York Times Magazine. It’s about waiting and watching at a lake in Hungary for a flock of Eurasian cranes on their southward migration. Are you catching my (her) drift now? She talks of various migrating birds, sandhill cranes, snow geese, and starlings. She describes a murmuration, the collective noun for a flock of starlings. She discusses why these birds flock. The reasons include for protection (out of fear), to signpost where they are to other starlings, and for warmth. These flocks, though, are also made up of “thousands of beating hearts and eyes”, of individual birds in other words..

As she watches and thinks, her mind turns to “more human matters”, to the “razor-wire fence” built by the Hungarian government to keep Syrian refugees out. She writes:

Watching the flock has brought home to me how easy it is to react to the idea of masses of refugees with the same visceral apprehension with which we greet a cloud of moving starlings or tumbling geese, to view it as a singular entity, strange and uncontrol­lable and chaotic. But the crowds coming over the border are people just like us — perhaps too much like us.

The flock made her realise that “in the face of fear, we are all starlings, a group, a flock made of a million souls seeking safety”. But flocks can also be transformed into “individuals and small family groups wanting the simplest things: freedom from fear, food, a place to safely sleep”. It’s a powerful statement for humanity. And I like the way it picks up ideas she touched on but didn’t explore at depth in H is for hawk.

Nature, or, more accurately, exploring its meaning for us and our relationship to it, is clearly an ongoing project for her. I’ll be interested to see how her ideas develop – but for now, you may be pleased to know, I’m moving on to other books and ideas!

PS Helen Macdonald gave the closing address at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival on “On looking at nature”. She gets into nature, history, culture and diversity. It runs for around 38 minutes, and makes for great listening.

Helen Macdonald
“On Nature: The human flock” in The New York Times Magazine, December 6, 2015.
Available: Online

19 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2016 9:15 pm

    If you want to look more into nature writing, I highly recommend Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane which a friend gave me for Christmas. I have since read it and loved it. MacFarlane is a fine writer himself and interested in language and landscape.

    Landmarks is his appreciation of the writings of other nature writers – Nan Shepherd, Roger Deakin, J A Baker and others I had never heard of. J A Baker wrote a book called The Peregrine, which of course reminded me of TH White and Helen MacDonald. After each chapter there is a glossary of words relating to the natural world as described in the preceding chapter – a wealth of them in fact – where the precision of meaning meets the observation of the phenomena in a host of different words, e.g. “quob” -quicksand; shaking bog as opposed to a “slack” which is a soft or boggy hollow.

    • March 6, 2016 9:29 pm

      Oh thanks Anne, I think I know more of the American nature writers. I’m guessing Robert MacFarlane is English? I love that he has a glossary of words. One of the things I enjoyed in H is for hawk is the language of falconry.

  2. March 6, 2016 10:52 pm

    A beautiful and thought provoking piece, loved it and the poignant quotes, I guess the short term view is to see it as sudden change, as an interruption, because human migration isn’t an annual thing that happens with the seasons, it is more affected by natural disaster if you will, including disaster brought about by humans themselves, be it war, occupation ,or something else.

    I was thinking yesterday about the particular case of England, and thinking in a kind of karmic sense of the ironies of the past. England isn’t necessarily responsible or connected to why things happen in the countries that people are fleeing from, but it has created itself as a kind of beacon, a lighthouse, which does attract the dispossessed. Long gone are the days of colonialism and sending the less worthy out there to fend for themselves, but now there is a human tsunami, heading towards it, something created out of a perception, and I suddenly had a vision of ‘Old England’ in another thousand years, looking very different than it does today.

    • March 6, 2016 11:15 pm

      Lovely thoughts Claire – I hope all of us to whom people are flocking are big enough to welcome them. Let’s hope that all of our countries are wonderful inclusive places in 1000 years.

      • March 7, 2016 1:50 am

        One of the things that happens when the environment begins to change is that some will voluntarily move on, I remember in New Zealand there was a sudden influx of immigration from South Africa when Nelson Mandela came into power. Lebanon is the only country I can think of that is suffering from not being big enough, governments do what they can, but I don’t think people really change,those seeking refuge, once comfortable and over generations, are just as likely to be unwelcoming (just as there are also likely to be those with opposite views) when another outside group comes seeking refuge, it seems that every generation develops both views, the empathic and those who resist change. I hope more people experiences kindnesses from others, so that are more likely to grow up and be inclined towards kindness themselves, rather than suffer and become angry, sad or otherwise.

        • March 7, 2016 8:19 am

          That’s a good and sad point Claire re those who’ve migrated in the past not always being generous about a later wave. This sort of amnesia is really weird to me, the fact that people, some I mean, don’t seem to empathise from their own experience when it comes to others in a similar situation.

  3. March 6, 2016 11:03 pm

    Lovely and thought-provoking post WG, thanks. I’ll make a point of finding that podcast. I think I recently listened to another one from the Sydney Writers Festival, of Helen MacDonald and Jeanette Winterson. Fascinating.

    • March 6, 2016 11:19 pm

      Thanks Michelle. I’ll go look for that too. There’s just way too much interesting stuff on the web for us to listen to isn’t there.

  4. March 7, 2016 1:16 am

    Here in the eastern US, there is an annual migration, one that has been occurring for centuries, from the northeast to Florida every winter. Those migrants even have a name: Snowbirds. They head south when the first flurries begin to fly, then head back north when the spring is near its end and the danger of frost has passed. In Europe, those who have both leisure and means have migrated to the Mediterranean coast every year, to exchange the cold, wet dreary winters for a milder climate. In both Europe and the Americas, workers migrate with the growing seasons to harvest crops (and on other continents, I’m sure). So, to say that human migration isn’t a thing of the seasons ignores millenniums of human history. (See Claire’s comment, above.)

    As you point out, however, old patterns of migration are often interrupted by political, geologic, or meteorologic upheaval, causing people to take flight in larger numbers with a more permanent intent. More often than not, these mass migrations are accompanied by famine, blight, war, and genocide, as tribes fight over limited resources. As the planet continues to warm, this will be happening more often and with more upheaval. And all the poetic language in the world cannot lessen the impact of such events.

    MacDonald seems to ignore that we really don’t fear murmurations of birds because the resources they seek do not threaten, so much, our own comfort and that the cooperation of those birds results from a belief that at the end of their flight, they will find what they seek, have been finding it for for eons. An interruption to that flight, at either end or along the way, would probably cause as much chaos as any mass human migration can cause: blight, war, and genocide (species extinction).

    I’m headed over to listen to MacDonald’s comments, now.

    • March 7, 2016 8:14 am

      Thanks Diane. Great comments. Love your point about birds/animals expecting to find what they need at the end, though we know that increasingly that isn’t the case for them either.

      Love your snowbirds example too!

      BTW Macdonald’s article is short … Just a newspaper column, so I think she wanted to keep to a main point re “flocking” and the fact that these flocks are also individuals, that groups can engender more fear and are thus easier to demonise.

    • March 7, 2016 8:26 am

      PS Diane, I think don’t think Claire was talking seasons, was she? I think she was focusing political environment leading to migration.

  5. March 7, 2016 5:26 am

    Sue, every piece of yours like this is inspiring me to read ‘H is For Hawk’ soon. The passages are beautiful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    • March 7, 2016 8:20 am

      Thanks Deepika … You’re on your own now! I’ve finished “pushing” it.

      • ian darling permalink
        March 7, 2016 8:57 pm

        The picture that Macdonald paints of pathological British reticence is all too accurate. I visit someone I know who has moved to Morningside, the poshest part of Edinburgh and the silence and the reserve can be pretty depressing. The fear of immigration is everywhere largely stoked up in the media. I rather dread the Little England that may emerge if it votes the leave the EU this summer (the Little Scotland that may emerge as a result would be even worse). It does look like Helen Macdonald might just be the best of the recent nature writers!

        • March 7, 2016 9:12 pm

          Thanks Ian. I agree that media doesn’t help at all, here either. If you have time to listen to her Sydney Writers’ Festival address do (at the link I provided). I think you’ll enjoy her reference to a 1930s English nature writer’s description of a Peregrine falcon and the Eleonora’s falcon through the prism of the writer’s culture.

  6. March 7, 2016 10:59 pm

    I think that may be the best piece I’ve read on this WG. I love the way you’ve focused on so small a part of the book, and yet brought so much forth from it.

    Humanity is rather lacking at the moment in the UK. We take very few of the current migrant population and describe those we abandon as if they were vermin. For the moment at least, and hopefully only for the moment, fear has rather triumphed over empathy.

    Anyway, great piece.

    • March 7, 2016 11:06 pm

      Thanks Max. I hate to say that the situation is similar here re asylum seekers. It’s so distressing. Australian was once better than that – we have at times been quite the leaders in social policy (if I understand my history correctly). But not now.

  7. March 8, 2016 6:53 am

    How curious the people who would stop and those who wouldn’t while she and Mabel were out walking. I’ve seen video of starling flocks and they are the most amazing things to watch. I don’t how they stay together like they do when I have trouble keeping in a tight group with only a few other cyclists! Seriously though, an very interesting point she makes about refugees. I look forward more and more to reading her book, this year perhaps? And I am eager to see what she comes out with next.

    • March 8, 2016 8:23 am

      I agree Stefanie, it will be interesting to see what she writes next. I found her address at the festival fascinating. Would love to see her write on some of the cultural aspects of nature writing. Of course some of that may be on her previous books. Hmm …

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